Spain in flames

Diplomatic Battles Before World War II -CH II

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 Fascist Intervention and a Travesty of Non-intervention

 “Clear skies all over Spain”—these words broadcast by Radio Ceuta (Spanish Morocco) in the night of July 18, 1936, signaled a sweeping counter-revolutionary rebellion in Spain against the Popular Front government.

The uprising began to be plotted right after the elections of February 16, 1936, in which the Popular Front parties scored a major victory. They won 269 seats in the newly-elected parliament. The right-wing parties gained 157 seats, and the centre parties—48. Having been defeated at the polls, Spanish reaction set out to gain political power through violence with the backing of German and Italian fascists.

The fascist powers—Germany and Italy—were prepared to aid Spanish reaction both for political and strategic and for economic considerations. Hitler and Mussolini were extremely displeased with the consolidation of democratic forces in Spain and with the sweeping anti-fascist movement in that country. They feared that the Popular Front victory in Spain could lead to the growth of the forces of democracy and progress in other countries of Europe.


Besides, Germany and Italy counted on the victory of reactionary forces in Spain helping them reinforce their own military and strategic positions for expanding aggression. The plans which the Nazi Reich had built on the intervention in Spain were revealed in a memorandum of the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It pointed out that the situation in France would change radically because her Iberian frontier and lines of communication with her colonial empire would come under threat. «Gibraltar would be worthless, and the freedom of movement of the British fleet through the Straits would depend on Spain, not to mention the possibility of having submarines and light naval forces as well as the air force operating from the Iberian peninsula in all directions of the compass. A European conflict in which the Rome-Berlin Axis was aligned against England and France would take on an entirely different aspect if a strong Spain joined the Rome-Berlin Axis.» “92”

Mussolini expected that by strengthening his foothold on the Iberian peninsula he would take a big step towards restoring the Roman Empire and transforming the Mediterranean into an «Italian lake”. He was already dreaming of the glory of ancient Roman emperors.

What attracted Italy and Germany also was Spain’s wealth of natural resources such as coal, iron ores, mercury, tungsten, lead, etc.

War equipment from Germany and Italy streamed thick and fast into Spain soon after the outbreak of the rebellion. That was because, among other things, as State Secretary of German Ministry for Foreign Affairs Ernst von Weizsacker pointed out in his diary, Franco, who led the fascist uprising in Spain, could not «establish his rule in Spain with his own forces alone».”93” Some 50 thousand German servicemen (including airmen and tankmen) were sent to Spain. The aid which Hitler gave to the Spanish rebels was estimated by German sources at 500 million marks 112(200 million dollars).”94” Italy supplied 1,930 guns, 7.5 million shells, 240 thousand rifles, 325 million cartridges, 7,633 motor vehicles, 950 tanks and armoured troop carriers. Close on 1,000 Italian planes were involved in the Spanish war, having made over 86 thousand sorties and dropped 11,584 tons of bombs. Around 150 thousand Italian soldiers fought against the Spanish Republic. As Italy’s Foreign Minister Ciano said in a conversation with Hitler, the expenses incurred by the Italian intervention in Spain amounted to 14,000 million lire (700 million dol- lars).”95”

The British Conservatives also had all their affection for Spanish reactionaries. The class hatred of the British ruling circles for the Popular Front government was greater than their fear lest Spain should find herself, in the event of a rebel victory, in the camp of Britain’s prospective military adversaries.

The diary of one of the British “die-hards”, Henry Channon had an entry dated July 27 which said: «For a few days, we had hoped that they (the rebels—Ed.) would win, though tonight it seems as if the Red government, alas, will triumph.» “98”

The class sentiment of the British ruling circles proved to be particularly acute because a Popular Front government was formed also in France, following the victory of the left forces in the elections of the spring of 1936. If the infection of Communism, the British Conservative Daily Mail wrote, now spreading in Spain and France, overflows into other countries, the two governments—German and Italian—which had killed this infection on their own soil would turn out to be our most useful friends.”97” The British government considered it undesirable to render even the least support to the legitimate government of Spain or somehow handicap the action of the Spanish rebels.

The British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden pointed out in a conversation with the Soviet Ambassador that a Franco victory would not be much of a danger to British interests. “98” Neither did Winston Churchill conceal in his conversation with the Soviet Ambassador that Franco’s victory was, in his opinion a «lesser evil» than the victory of the Republican government of Spain.”99” In Paris, meanwhile, the British Ambassador made no bones of Britain’s sympathy for the rebels. “10”°

The French government of the day was headed by Leon Blum, the right-wing socialist leader who, in fact, shared the British Conservatives’ policy with regard to Spain. On July 25, 1936, the Blum government banned arms deliveries to Spain and ordered the French border with Spain to be closed. In common with the British “die-hards”, Blum was striving of an “appeasement” of Germany and for a Franco-German rapprochement. On September 12, 1936, the Soviet Ambassador to France, V. P. Potemkin, reported to the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs that the aggravation of the internal situation in the country, the Spanish events, Britain’s indecision and the Germany’s growing might were strengthening in France the «trend towards an accommodation with Germany… Anti-Soviet sentiment is seen growing.»“101” French politicians G. Bonnet and G. Mandel admitted in a conversation with Potemkin that I he Blum government toed the British line in seeking agreement with Germany.”102”

Barely half a year after the Soviet-French treaty of nonaggression came into effect, the French government started to consider getting rid of it. The French Foreign Minister Yvon Delbos said in November 1936 that «the chief aim of the French-Russian agreement was to draw Germany away from Soviet Russia, that is, to counteract a possible renewal of the Rapallo policy”. At present the signing of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact «definitely cancelled such a possibility. Therefore, the attitude of the French government toward an agreement with Russia might also be subject to certain alteration.” Delbos maintained that there was a majority opinion in France in favour of mutual understanding with Germany.”103”

U.S. policy with respect to the Spanish issue differed but outwardly from that of Britain and France. Whereas the British and French governments pursued a policy of » nonintervention”, that of the United States adhered to the policy of isolationism. The U.S. neutrality legislation was extended to cover Spain on January 7, 1937. That went far towards complicating the position of the Republican government for it deprived that government of an opportunity to buy war equipment in the United States. The best evidence to that effect was provided by this statement of Franco: «Neutrality legislation … the quick manner in which it was passed and carried into effect—is a gesture we, 114nationalists, will never forget.» “104” The fascist press rejoiced in this indication that «American neutrality means German Italian domination of Spain”,”105” the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin William E. Dodd stated.

Due to persistent efforts by Britain and France, 27 nations of Europe concluded an agreement on non– intervention in the affairs of Spain in August 1936. A Non– intervention Committee started to function in London in compliance with this agreement. The Soviet Union agreed to take part in its work at the request of France. The Soviet government guided itself, in so doing, by a desire to localize the civil war in Spain, to prevent it escalating into a world war. At the same time the Soviet Union proceeded from the assumption that without foreign intervention, the Spanish people, who were, as the election had shown, in their majority at the side of the legitimate Republican government, could uphold their democratic gains and bar the way to reaction and obscurantism. The Soviet representative in the London-based Non-intervention Committee in the affairs of Spain had instructions, notably, to try to hamper arms supplies to Spanish rebels and press for strict control over the action of Germany, Italy and Portugal.”106”

The participation in the Committee gave the Soviet government a chance of upholding the interests of the Spanish Republic in it, preventing it from taking any decisions likely to infringe its legitimate rights and interests and expose the German and Italian invaders.

Soviet Aid to the Spanish People

The Soviet government faithfully honored the agreement on non-intervention. But when it became obvious that Italy and Germany were rendering all possible military aid to the Spanish rebels, the Soviet Union issued a warning on October 7, 1936, that, unless the violations of the agreement on non-intervention were stopped, the USSR would consider itself free from obligations arising from that agreement.”107”

However, military supplies for the rebels from Germany and Italy, far from ending, went on expanding. Under those circumstances, the Soviet government came forward with a new statement on October 23. it pointed out that the 115agreement on non-intervention had turned into a scrap of paper and was virtually null and void. Having no desire to be a party to that unfair business, the statement said, the Soviet government saw but one way out of the prevailing situation and that was by restoring the government of Spain’s right and opportunity to buy arms. The Soviet Union pointed out that «it cannot consider itself bound by the agreement on non-intervention any more than any of the other parties to this agreement”. “108”

The Soviet position of principle as regards the Spanish Republic was set out in a letter of December 21, 1936, from J. V. Stalin, V. M. Molotov and K. Y. Voroshilov to the Spanish head of government Largo Caballero. «We have considered and we do consider it to be our duty,” the letter pointed out, «to come to the aid, within the limits of the possibilities at our disposal, to the Spanish government which is leading the struggle of the entire working people and of all Spanish democracy against the military-fascist clique which is an instrument of international fascist forces.» “109”

Since non-intervention in the affairs of Spain had been reduced to a mere farce because of the action of the Third Reich and fascist Italy, the Soviet government deemed it to be its duty to resume the sales of war equipment to the legitimate government of Spain. When the fascist forces launched their offensive on the 7th of November 1936, to capture Madrid, the legitimate Spanish government already had some Soviet tanks and aircraft at its disposal.

The slogan of Spanish patriots «No pasaran!» rang out in many countries of the world. Under that slogan, from 20 to 25 thousand volunteers, who had arrived in Republican Spain from all countries, including the Soviet Union, were heroically fighting for democracy, against fascism.

The Spanish reactionary forces, when starting the rebellion, hoped for a quick and easy victory over the Spanish Republicans. However, their designs fell through. A mass of the people of Spain rose to fight the rebels. Their heroism proved to be superior to fascist weapons. Having braved the onslaught of the invading forces against the Spanish capital, they frustrated the fascist plan to make short shrift of the Republic. What happened instead was the first major armed battle in Europe of the forces of aggression and fascism against those of peace and progress which went on for over two years.

The Civil War and foreign intervention in Spain substantially changed the alignment of forces in Europe. Since the attention of Britain, France and Italy, for whom the problems of the Mediterranean were of tremendous importance, had been riveted to the events in Spain, those in Central Europe receded into the background. The Nazi Reich took advantage of that to step up its action and start, outright preparations for the seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia. What made things easier for it was that France was departing from the course towards co-operation with the Soviet Union she had barely taken, and joined Britain in seeking an imperialist deal with Germany and Italy, that is in abetting their aggressive designs.

The Merlin-Rome Axis. Anti-Comintern Pact

Close co-operation of Italian and German fascists in the invasion of Spain accelerated the cobbling together of their aggressor bloc. «We must take up an active role,” Hitler said in a conversation with Italy’s Foreign Minister Ciano. «We must go over to the attack.” The Nazi Chancellor argued that there was no clash of interests between Germany and Italy: Germany must have a free hand in the East of Kurope and in the Baltic region, while any change in the balance of forces in the Mediterranean must be in Italy’s interest. He said the German government was successfully conducting negotiations on co-operation also with Japan and Poland. The tactical field on which Germany and Italy could execute their manoeuvre in respect of the Western powers, Hitler stressed, was that of anti-Bolshevism.”110”

A German-Italian agreement which started the so-called Berlin-Rome Axis was signed the day after that conversation, on October 25, 1936. The two aggressors agreed on measures they could take to help the Spanish rebels. The Nazis recognised Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia, while the Italians promised not to interfere in relations between Germany and Austria.

The Nazi Reich attached tremendous importance also to strengthening its links with Japan since she could become 117its major ally in the war both against the USSR and against the Western powers. German-Japanese talks had begun on Germany’s initiative back in 1035. Japan, which harbored the idea of a far-reaching expansion into the Far Eastern and other areas of Asia was also interested in having allies. The Japanese military attaché in the USSR Kasaliara, in his reports to the War Ministry, emphasised the need to «involve the Western neighbours and other states in the war against the USSR».”112” Hostility towards the USSR was equally great in Nazi Germany and in militarist Japan. On January 12, 1936, the Soviet Ambassador to Germany, Y. 7. Surits, reported, with many facts to bear him out, that Germany and Japan, «treaty or no treaty . . will join forces in a conflict against the USSR. So far as we are concerned, Japan and Germany are bound together by the lies of blood, by a community of interests and by the you scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours principle».”112” The rulers of Germany and Japan, however, feared they could provoke the displeasure of the Western powers by concluding an outright military alliance. To conceal the true purpose of the Gorman-Japanese collusion, the Nazis offered to call it «Anti-Comintern Pact”. The Pact was signed on November 25, 1936.

Naturally, the name of the Pact misled nobody in the Soviet Union. It laid, in fact, the foundations of the military alliance of the aggressors in the coming war. A secret agreement was signed together with the Pact between Germany and Japan providing that in the event of a conflict of one of its signatories with The USSR, they «must immediately consider steps required for the defence of their common interests». “113”

The Gestapo chief Himmler, informing Hitler on January 31, 1937, about his negotiations with the Japanese military attaché in Berlin General Oshima, pointed out that the object of the measures being worked out by German and Japanese representatives was to dismember Russia, starting from the Caucasus and the Ukraine. “114”

A bilateral Italian-Japanese treaty was concluded also on December 2, 1936, to form a bloc of three aggressor powers. The “Axis” became “Triangle”. The Deputy People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of The USSH, 13. S. Stomonyakov, pointed out in a letter to the Soviet Ambassador in Tokyo M. M. Slavutsky that Japan had further strengthened her 118links with Germany and Italy and, according to quite reliable sources, the Japanese government considered these relations to have «virtually assumed the character of an alliance”. «“5”

That was how an alliance of three aggressors was set up to try and redraw the map of the world by means of war. That alliance posed a tremendous danger to the USSR. At the same time it was directed against many other nations, both large and small. Without venturing to attack the USSR for the time being, the aggressors used that alliance for concerting their action against those states which they could rather hope to overpower.

Pirates from the Apennines

Taking advantage of the policy of “non-intervention”, pursued by Britain, France and the United States, the fascist powers were acting with growing impudence everywhere, Spain included. They decided to block up Republican Spain from the sea. Fascist submarines started piratically attacking ships bound for her ports. Merchant vessels of the USSR, Britain, France and Greece, Scandinavia, and some other countries were attacked by “unidentified” submarines. It was an open secret, however, that those » unidentified» submarines were Italian, that is, those coming from the Apennines. Enough documentary evidence has since appeared to confirm this. For example, on December 16, 1936, Mussolini disclosed, in a conversation with the German Ambassador U. Hassell, that seven Italian submarines were active in those operations.”116”

Soviet steamship Timiryazev was sunk in the Mediterranean on August 30, 1937, and the Blagoyev on September 1. The Soviet government lodged a strong protest with the government of Italy.

Increasingly brazen action of pirates in the major imperial lines of communication routes of Britain and France could not but anger their own ruling establishment. After an “unidentified” submarine torpedoed the British destroyer Havoc, on August 31, Britain, which once ruled the seas, found it impossible to tolerate such humiliation any longer. So when the French government, early in September, called for a conference on action to control piracy in the Mediterranean, Britain seconded that initiative.

An international conference met in Nyon on September 10–14, 1937, to work out a specific and effective agreement to control piracy in the Mediterranean. Speaking at the conference, Litvinov declared that the Soviet Union was interested in the questions it dealt with not only because the USSR had its shores washed by the waters mixing with those of the Mediterranean, which linked the Soviet ports with the outside world as well as between themselves, but also because «the Soviet Union as a major power, conscious of its rights and obligations, is interested in keeping up the international order and peace and in opposing all kinds of aggression and international violence”. “117”

It was decided at the conference to destroy the submarines that would attempt to attack merchant shipping and appropriate measures were outlined. Their effect at once put an end almost totally to fascist piracy in the Mediterranean.

The Nyon Conference was of great importance also in that it showed the possibility and effect of collective action against aggression. It offered conclusive evidence to show that, given joint determined action by the USSR, Britain and France, the aggressors would have to retreat. Its decisions were a great achievement largely due to Soviet diplomacy.

The Washington Star, in an article «Victory of Red Diplomacy”, said on September 12, 1937, that one had to recognise that the result of anti-pirate conference in Nyon looked too much like a victory for Soviet diplomacy. That Conference had been organised by Britain and France, but it was thanks to Russia alone that the Conference was compelled to take prompt and concrete decisions.

That positive experience of collective action against the aggressor was not, unfortunately, taken into account by the ruling circles of Britain and France subsequently in what was a far more complex setting.

Spanish Fascists in Madrid

Meanwhile, the fascist powers continued to render tremendous assistance to Franco. Having built up their forces, the invaders and the rebels launched an offensive early in 1938. On April 15, they succeeded in breaking through 120to the Mediterranean, north of Valencia, cutting Spanish territory in two. That seriously complicated the situation of the Spanish Republic.

The Republic was stabbed in the back by British Premier Neville Chamberlain. On a visit to Rome, he signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with Mussolini on April 1(>, 1938. Under that treaty, the British government acknowledged Franco’s right of a belligerent part after some of the foreign combatants had been withdrawn from Spain. Al the same time, Britain recognised Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia.

The policy of the French government differed but little from that of Britain. The government of Daladier which came into office in April 1938 turned right abruptly. The Soviet Ambassador in Paris, Surits, pointed out on June 20, 1038, that the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Georges Bonnet, «has taken a definite line towards strangling Barcelona and establishing ’normal’ relations with Franco”. «“8”

The Spanish people, with support from the progressive forces of the whole world, continued their heroic resistance to the fascist invasion. However, the position of the Republic was getting increasingly critical because of the collusion of the reactionary governing quarters of Western powers with German and Italian fascists.

On February 27, 1930, Britain and France recognised the government of Franco and broke off diplomatic relations with the Spanish Republic. Under those circumstances, the Soviet government found it impossible to continue to participate in the deliberations of the Non-intervention Committee. On March 1, 1939, it decided to recall its representative from the committee.

Shortly afterwards the fascist forces captured Madrid and established their domination of the whole country by the end of March. The victory of the Italian and German invaders and rebels over the Spanish Republic essentially altered the situation in Europe. The hopes of the British ruling circles that they could keep Spain under their control by economic means proved to be an illusion. On March 27, 1939, Franco joined the Anti-Comintern Pact. Having thus blown up France’s rear, Germany and Italy created favourable opportunities for stepping up their acts of aggression in Central and Eastern Europe.



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